Saturday, February 23, 2008
Who Needs Flowers?
I’ll admit it. I’m a freak for form and foliage (and using the letter ‘f’ many times). Flowers are great. It’s like the rush you feel from infatuation – a quickening of the pulse and flush of the cheeks, then a slow fade to normalcy. It doesn’t have the staying power of a long-term relationship based on a strong foundation. Sure, the bright colors of a Better Homes and Gardens-style perennial border stimulate they eye, but once that burst of color peaks, it’s downhill.
My highest admiration is reserved for designs that exploit the infinite range of visual combinations that come from the more permanent characteristics of plants – their overall form (or architecture), foliage color, the fineness or boldness of the leaves, their surface texture.
This is not to say that I avoid flowering plants in my designs. Far from it. The designs just don’t depend on it. I’ve realized after a few decades that when the flowers fade, the dead-heading is done, and there’s no bone structure left to provide interest, you might as well plow the whole thing under, cover the ground with mulch and wait for the next planting season. But if there’s an underlying composition that continues to contribute interest throughout the year, then you’ve really got something.
Try this comparison.
The first garden on the right has no flowers. Its composition emphasizes the contrasting elements of bright yellow-green Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ in the mid-ground, the somber Eugenia hedge and lighter Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ grass at the back, and the dark green filaments of Juncus patens (California Rush) in the foreground. Oh yes, there’s a sandstone boulder that’s to die for! The garden looks like this pretty much every day of the year with minimal maintenance. `
This garden is what many people strive for – bright, colorful flowers (two varieties of begonia), a simple color scheme of pink and white, and a crisp edge of dwarf Agapanthus. I’ll be the first to tell you that this creates a charming entry bed that sets off the base of the statue. But what happens when the flowers subside? The foliage color and texture of both begonias are identical, and the leaf color of the Agapanthus merges with the others. The only interest comes from the textural differences between the two species.
These black and white comparisons tell it all.
Imagine we had no color vision. Which garden would hold your interest? The complexity of the first composition blows the second out of the water.
Now imagine the first garden WITH a great palette of colorful, tastefully combined flowers and you have it all. Not to take anything away from people who create stunning floral borders, but the type of design I’m endorsing takes a lot more effort and deeper knowledge of plants.
Thanks for reading. I hope this stimulates some discussion and helps you with your own garden.